The story which I am about to tell is not my own creation. I was acquainted with it about ten years ago while I was spending my holidays in the country at my grandmother's. There, one summer afternoon, while skimming through a magazine, the name of which I cannot remember, I came across it. Its author was a nun, a certain Sister Martha, if my memory does not deceive me, for, I must confess that I cannot recollect every detail of it. Since I did not have the wisdom to keep that magazine, or at least to copy out the story, I will not be able to offer a completely faithful account of it. Despite these shortcomings I feel I am bound to pass it on, thinking that it might be of some benefit to those who will take the trouble to read it.
I had been brought up', the nun wrote, beginning her story, in religious ways and customs. My parents were common people and proud of their modest origins, but they led a pure if not holy life. Since my earliest infancy they often brought me to our Lord's House, the church, as if they had somehow foreseen the way which I would choose years later. They did their best to provide for me, and sent me to one of the best schools in town, while I, in my turn, lived up to their expectations and even exceeded them, as my aunt told me years later. I was nineteen when they passed away and it was then that I resolved to fulfill my dream and enter a convent. I was at peace with myself, for this had always been my strongest desire, my calling: to follow the Lord thoroughly, to deny myself and take up my cross. Thus I did and went through the whole course of ascetic life. I adhered to the rule once given to me by the abbess regarding physical and spiritual work, laboring to subject the flesh to the will of the spirit. Now, I had not been a country girl. I had grown up in a city, but we had a little house in the country with a beautiful garden. Yet, my parents had never told me Take this spade and dig the garden, will you? I could not even handle a shovel.
When I began my life at the convent I had to labor, sometimes seven - eight hours a day. I never flinched from doing my duty, for obedience is rule number one of monastic life. After a few years, noticing my inclination to study the Divine Scriptures, the abbess sent me to university, and I took up Theology against my will. Whether resting, standing, working, fasting or eating I constantly had a single aim: always to sing to God and to practice the teaching of the Holy Scriptures.
Thus the years passed and I reached the age of forty-three. By that time I had already been abbess for fourteen years. My only trouble was that I began to be tormented with the thought that I was perfect in everything and needed no instruction from anyone, saying to myself mentally, Is there a nun on earth who can be of use to me and show me a kind of asceticism or obedience which I have not accomplished?
Thus I thought and began to feel uneasy, for I assumed that I was being tempted by the Devil, which pride, the origin of all sins and evils, had entered my heart. I prayed to God fervently for guidance and went to confession. I cleansed my soul of all sins, leaving the thought that was troubling me for last.
When I had told my father confessor about it, he answered me mildly: Martha, my child, I will tell you a story. Will you hear it? Of course I would, especially if this would free me from the temptation. And he began his story. About thirty-five years ago, he said, I married two young people. I was priest-confessor at another convent then. A monk rarely has the occasion to do this as people usually prefer parish churches when it comes to weddings.
But they wanted something special, intimate. They were also very attached to me, because I had been their confessor for half a year or so, I cannot remember exactly.
Their life after that was beautiful and simple, just as their wedding had been, until, six or seven years later, one evening she appeared at the convent in a state of tremendous emotional upheaval, telling me that her husband was seeing another woman. He had got tired of her, although she had loved him, respected him and tried to please him as far as it had been in her power. Conflicts, scenes started. The man had become irritable and often got angry without any reason. His parents found out, too. They advised him. They told him that his wife had a heart of gold, but he would not listen. The woman too tried to make him see reason, but in vain.
The vows he had made to her in marriage were nothing to him now. It is very difficult in these situations to comfort the afflicted one. In the Holy Writ everything seems very simple, precise. But when you face a real life situation is much more complicated, for the human soul is complex. I advised her to be patient and wait, but things only worsened. The man brought his mistress into their house to live with her shamelessly there, while his wife was banished and sent up into the garret. She often came to the convent. Had you seen her, it would have wrung your heart. She never cursed, hated, spoke or thought ill of those who had afflicted her. Within the cold garret she spent days and nights like a martyr. Alone, hungry shut up in that room, she prayed fervently and begged God to have mercy on her. I knew that what I had in front of me was a saint. I became humble and lowly to such a degree that I felt the need to throw myself to the ground, embrace her feet, kiss them and wash them with my tears. But such a thing I was not allowed to do. She needed help and comfort. She! Can you imagine? She, the woman upon whom The Holy Spirit had come down, washing her from every trace of iniquity! And I, the poor wretch, often heard her confession where she would say O Lord, have mercy on my soul, have mercy on me who am so sinful!' But when it came to confessing her sins, she did not know what to say, for she had none. I do not wish to say she was perfect. This is impossible, for no man has attained perfection. She had her infirmities, of course. But sins she had not.
One evening, when all was quiet in the house, the poor woman walked down the stair and went into the living room, for she knew that there was an icon of the Blessed Virgin. She wanted to take it to keep her company in the garret. In the dim light of a candle she went up onto the table and took the icon down, and holding it tight to her bosom, she threw herself onto the floor and wept bitterly. How long did she lie like this? Finally she fell asleep
The next morning the door swung itself open. It was her husband, who entered unexpectedly looking for something. The sorry sight flung him into great terror. For a moment he stood stone-still in a cold sweat. Then he went over to his wife and wakened her: Rise, he said, Forgive me I am a villain And he burst into tears. Soon the mistress left the house forever. And they were reconciled. Mary, that was the woman's name, passed away two years ago on the very day of our Lord's Resurrection after having received The Holy Communion.
The priest finished his story uttering a sigh. Under his stole, still on my knees, I was weeping. Thank Thee Lord , for showing me how far I am from perfection, I said. After a few moments I felt a sharp pain in my knees. It was all so beautiful and touching, Father, but I must confess that my knees hurt awfully, I went on, and he answered smiling: Well, this is the penance I assigned you. And while I was still pondering over his story, he rose, put the stole over my head again, saying the absolution prayer: May our Lord Jesus Christ, by the grace and compassion of His love for mankind, forgive you, my child Martha, all your transgressions. And I, His unworthy Priest, through the power given me, forgive and absolve you from all your sins, in the Name of the Father, and of the Son, and of the Holy Spirit. Amen.'